‘Killing Off’ Our Traditional Understanding Of Violence

Violence affects us all, even if only indirectly. It may be that we’ve been the subject of its ferocity, or we may have seen its ferocity directed at someone we love and care for. We also see it often enough around the world on the news and social media.

Currently appearing through these channels with great frequency, is of militant groups in Iraq harming, maiming and killing people from minority groups. We will probably remember for years to come the image of a seven year old child holding up a severed head with his Australian father cheering him on. With this kind of violence going on, including violence inflicted by our own military intervention, we find a society living in fear, confusion and distress.

This is one of the worlds more serious examples and yet the effects of violence are real for all of us. For one thing, we have become a society that lives in disquiet due to fears associated with terrorism and other experiences of violence, making us bar our windows, lock our doors, build walls around us and invest exorbitant amounts of tax payers’ money into the police force, military and physical structures fit for human incarceration.

Yet, despite how hard we try to defend ourselves through our walled structures, and other physical and psychological barriers, the insidious nature of violence snakes its way into our homes, workplaces and all other of our social spaces and institutions. However, it tends to appear in ways that go beyond our traditional understanding of violence.

If we divide violence into the observable and unobservable, or less easily observable, we can gain a broader understanding of the nature of violence. These distinctions will become clear and to help I will refer to my previous blog post, ‘Conflict, a Bad Start for a Peace Architecture.’

The observable violence in the household, school, university, community or workplace may consist of verbal, physical, and psychological and emotional abuse. It is generally these things that we want addressed or prevented and we often do this by constraining, removing or silencing the offending party.

Addressing this is quite normal because this violence tends to appear in the branches of our conflict tree (see, ‘Conflict a Bad Start for a Peace Architecture’). They are by nature the more observable displays of conflict. We can see someone getting struck or verbally assaulted because these acts represent an event at a single point in space and time.

This reality is reflected in the common dictionary meanings of violence. The Australian Oxford Dictionary describes violence as “behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” And common synonyms include, “brutality”, “savagery” and “barbarity.”

Unfortunately this makes us think that it is only the symptoms (branches of the tree) that signify the violence in the conflict and it is normally only this violence that we seek to prevent. Our social and legal institutions are also largely only designed to address this dimension of the violence.

The less observable forms of violence are, by nature, more subtle, often existing in the roots of our conflict tree. If we define violence as anything that inhibits a person’s ability to satisfy their needs and develop or reach their full potential, we can begin to understand how violence may be present in the conflict trees’ roots. This definition reflects peace theorist Johan Galtung’s description of violence.

Violence understood in this way enables a broader conception of violence as something more than simply hitting, striking, verbally assaulting or psychologically manipulating someone. From Galtung’s perspective there can also be structural and cultural dimensions to violence. It is these forms of violence that may have helped to fuel the conflict, so we need to be better aware of them.

While Galtung uses large scale war and conflict to define the cultural and structural dimensions of violence (perfect for the current situation in Iraq), I am going to adopt his terms and apply it, for now, at the household, community and business levels. We can understand these other two dimensions of violence by first defining cultures and structures.

Cultural Violence
Culture lends understanding to how we function, how we understand and how we relate to others. We can think of the dominant culture adopted by the larger society, and alternatively sub-cultures, or cultures existing within the dominant culture. As such, we can also talk about cultures in the home, business, school, football club and other associations. Culture, writes Galtung, is expressed through the symbolic; language used, ideology believed in and adopted, uses of science and in particular human biology, and added to this can be status symbols, reflecting someone’s position, title or rank.

As such, cultural violence would be formed in the adoption of a culture in which those who believe themselves to be ‘superior’, because they possess the right set of qualifications, skill or even gender or religion within their sphere of social activity, assert their power over the rest. The obvious result of this is to make another individual or group from outside or even within the dominant culture, or sub- culture, to appear inferior, maybe dehumanised, which can be seen in treatment of those without qualifications, appropriate status, gender or religion. Frequently we see that the disabled, women and children qualify.

Structural Violence
Structures can be viewed with respect to how individuals relate and how resources are distributed or accessed across society. Structures exist within the family, business, organised religion, governance, and the economic and the political spheres of our societies.

Structural violence would prevent access by certain people to different resources within the household, business, community or other social institutions within the broader society. These are systems, structures or policies that impose or alienate and marginalise, and harm relationships, capacity, participation, growth and development of people. And as Galtung suggests, it is often characterised by exploitation whereby people at the top get more out of their interaction within the structure than those at the bottom.

To see how the different dimensions of violence interact we can view them in a triangular formulation, which Galtung names, ‘the violence triangle’. Violence can begin from any one of the points on the triangle and all dimensions often then serve to reinforce and justify or legitimise the others, as in the image below.

Violence Triangle Image

To provide an example of what this looks like I will use the illustration reflected in the conflict tree in my blog post, ‘Conflict, a Bad Start for a Peace Architecture’. If one of the parties in marriage, say the woman in this example, is seen as irrational and irresponsible because she is a woman, whose importance is only found through child bearing, loss of financial control may be the outcome of this attitude.

Structures may then exist to prevent her from accessing the financial account and managing household money and resources. This may translate into an inability to access education for the purposes of personal development, increasing potential income generating opportunities from possible employment. Her voice in making decisions with how to use the household finances may also be absent.

With this cultural and structural violence in place, direct acts of violence easily follow, including isolation, submission and control, deprivation, manipulation, emotional and physical abuse.

This is an example of the way in which cultural violence on the triangle has helped to legitimise structural and direct violence. Taken together this violence may result in police and judicial institutions turning a blind eye to direct acts of violence and policy makers giving no consideration to the issues. Alternatively, if laws are present, the issues may be cleverly concealed through coercive or manipulative means.

I chose this example because it is easy to observe its presence in so many of the countries in which I have travelled, even my own. Yet, this example aside, it is probably not hard for most of us, even those who currently hold the power, to remember a time when we were prevented from contributing to family or business decisions, were constrained from access to resources that would enhance our personal development, had our voices silenced in an important decision that directly affected our lives or had to give up on something of value to us because outside forces obstructed its possession. If this is easy to remember, we can probably also remember the associated feelings of dispossession, disempowerment, frustration, anger and potentially resulting aggression.

These feelings are quite normal to the process of disempowerment and the inability to satisfy our needs and reach our full potential. They are normal because we are being exposed to various forms of violence, which only serves to harm the very core of our humanness. Violence is opposed to our being human because it disempowers us and promotes our death. And I’m not just talking about our ultimate physical death, but our spiritual, psychological and emotional death.

If we are the more powerful individual or group in our spheres of influence, whether it be at home, work or in any other social institution, it may be tempting to leave things as they are and, in fact, create ways of maintaining the status quo, probably though violent structures.

In this case, how long do we think the other parties’ will simply accept the imposition of our demands? If our demands are followed, they are most likely not going to be owned and internalised by the other party. Others may yield or surrender to our will but any subsequent actions may only be undertaken begrudgingly or maybe even with sinister motive. In any case, a durable solution to the issues we face will not have been gained.

Alternatively, if we are the ones who have had our wills broken, it may also be tempting to leave things as they are and simply withdraw physically, emotionally and psychologically. Yet, how long until this withdrawal results in depression, self harm or displaced aggression? These outcomes for us will be another result of our submission or subjection. In any case, everyone loses! I know you may be thinking, “Surely not everyone loses. What about the people who possess the power in my relationships?” The complications from this kind of violence are real for everybody, and here’s how.

In business we may see high turnover of staff, low productivity, misplaced aggression, high levels of sick leave, acidic relationships and little respect for leadership. This will certainly impact the profit margins of any business. In the family we may see between partners, entrenched conflict, poor communication, long silences, long absences, and divorce or separation. In children we may see bed wetting, poor school performance, back-chatting, physical and emotional withdrawal, a desire to rebel, physical violence, depression, anxiety, poor social skills and general misbehaviour.

Here we can see in business and the family both the more powerful people and the submissive or subjected people are negatively affected. Everyone loses, even if not immediately. These impacts can of course be broadened into other social spaces and institutions.

These dimensions of violence are certainly not the only reason that these issues may be present in the home, community, school or workplace, which is why the symptoms and causes of conflict need to be explored and distinguished from one another. The culture and structures present may only be part of the reason for the conflict, though a very significant reason.

This blog, I hope, helps us to realise that direct acts of violence may not be the most important dimension of violence in our conflict, if violence is understood as anything that inhibits a person’s ability to satisfy their needs and develop or reach their full potential. These other dimensions are just as important as the direct forms of violence and need to be addressed to create a long term solution to our conflicts.

So, the direct acts of violence in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East are serious and we should be repulsed by them, yet to simply try and constrain through further military intervention, those who are the perpetrators of violence, will not be sufficient to end the broader structural and cultural dimensions of violence that have helped to fuel the conflict. I hope this blog post demonstrates that we cannot impose our wills militarily, nor can ISIS impose theirs on minority groups, with any long term positive effect. These efforts only reflect cultural, structural and direct violence, which people will continue to reject and resist. Everyone will lose this battle. A more peaceful solution to the crises is needed.

And let’s not forget that the same principle exists for us, wherever in the world we may live. Maybe we will begin to be more aware of the frustration, disempowerment and anger that may be present in our families, workplaces, schools, universities and systems of governance, resulting from all of the dimensions of violence that may be present, but go unaddressed. If we work hard together for a peace architecture that will define our social spaces and institutions, we can make a positive change.

By seeking to understand these other dimensions of violence, together with an ability to distinguish between symptoms and causes, we will hopefully be empowered to stand back and take a more objective and clear view of the conflict. This will help to generate possible ways to transform the situation, with benefits distributed across all of the parties involved in the conflict. I will identify several ways in which this can be done in future blog posts.


This blog is not a psycho-social self help guide. If any of the blog posts bring up some significant issues for you, I encourage you to find psychological support, mediation and other forms of therapy. All of which I have personally pursued to great advantage over the years. The benefits of these blog posts lie in identifying and analysing some significant issues we all may be facing in our families, communities, workplaces and societies more broadly. I hope my writing helps to define the issues while we work together towards making a more peaceful society and world.


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